Often it's not the fancy and expensive technology that makes a difference in establishing a more effective contact center but the ways that managers tackle problems and come up with innovative solutions. Technology can certainly help, but to only the extent that you use it in a way that complements your investments in people and sound business practices.
In that spirit, here are some of the best tips for call center improvement that I've collected from managers and call center consultants. Some of them are small changes — but from a series of small improvements, you can create a climate of striving for excellence.
* Don't let customers use you as a crutch. It will cost you if you don't give your customers the tools to find things out for themselves when and where they want to do so. Just as you train agents, you sometimes have to train customers. First, provide a voice response unit as a front end to answer routine questions. Increasingly, speech recognition is a viable option to let people serve themselves and solve their own problems. Whenever the interaction is just about information extraction — What's my balance? Did you get my payment? When will you ship my package? — it's not necessary for you to spend on an agent.
* Ask the right questions of your vendors. Make sure the features you request are features you actually need or might need in the future and that those features really work the way you want. It's not enough just to ask a vendor if the product is “Web-enabled,” for example. Many will say yes and leave it at that, not explaining that there are many ways to Web-enable a help desk. Purchasers should be careful not to simply go down a checklist of wants without knowing how they want the vendors to approach those wants.
* Groupware features can be especially helpful in customer service software. Especially helpful are features that let users communicate: messaging, smart routing and forwarding and automatic priority escalation, to name a few. One feature along these lines that is often overlooked in contact centers is unified messaging, especially for smaller sales forces. Getting people to work together and share information is so much easier when it is all coordinated in one place.
* Even if you have a dispatch center, it may not be worthwhile to staff it around the clock for the slim chance of a customer calling with a problem at 3 a.m. Yet think of how pleased a customer would be at that hour to reach a live voice, assuring that the right person would come to fix the problem. One solution is outsourcing the overflow. You can hire a service bureau for the 24-hour, after-hour or overflow dispatch service support. It will screen situations, page the appropriate technician and automatically route unanswered pages with escalation instructions to an operator.
* One way to keep customers happy is to be up-front with the truth. You should immediately acknowledge back orders or out-of-stock products. Be as specific as possible about the actual shipping date for items the customer ordered.
* Never fulfill an order without going for an additional sale. Let customers know about other products or services that might interest them. All the customer has to do is say no, and if you're smart, you'll hit them up through some other media, like a package insert with the item they've bought or through e-mail or some other interaction channel.
* Don't succumb to the temptation to make your on-hold message a no-holds-barred extravaganza, catering to every caller and using every auditory bell and whistle. Messages should be simple, to the point and not annoying. That's what will keep callers on the line.
* Also on the subject of on-hold messaging: You might be thinking “Why should I invest in programming or production? Can't I just play the radio on hold to keep people amused until an agent is available?” The answer is no. Playing the radio over the phone amounts to a rebroadcast of copyrighted material. You can buy a license in advance, for a sum that depends on the number of phone lines you have. If you don't do it in advance, you can end up owing the music-licensing associations much more — a fee ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars per song. And if your competitors find out you are playing the radio on hold, where do you think they'll place their ads? Finally, you'll lose all the benefits of having someone call — you're not selling to them or giving them some value-added information that's going to gain or keep a customer. And you're probably paying for the call, too. Think about it.
* Do you ever wonder what would happen if you let two agents go on vacation at once? Or if you added a part-time agent for a few hours on Mondays? Or what would happen if call volume increased? Using software to create these what-if scenarios lets you know how much more frequently callers would hang up and how long callers would be likely to wait in line. Find out the effects before you make the changes.
* Some centers have supervisors and managers walk around and tell agents the general status of queues and wait times. When things get bad, they run around and yell at agents. Using reader boards to pass on supervisor statistics to agents increases productivity. It gives agents a chance to monitor themselves and decide when it may be okay to log out for breaks and lunch. And it gives supervisors freedom to move about the center and provide individualized assistance.
* Make the most of your reports. Try segmenting agents into work groups based on similar salary levels and other attributes so you can compare how each agent is performing relative to others in the work group.
These tips are not a panacea for a center with glaring problems in efficiency or customer satisfaction. But for those who feel they are settling for results that could be better or whose approaches to the customer may be getting a little stale, these might be just the thing.